My Point

In Wilton, Viral Photo Offers Cautionary Tale About Sports During A Pandemic

Wilton’s Drew Phillips looks for running room during a state playoff game last December against St. Joseph.

When conditioning practice resumed yesterday afternoon, Wilton football coach EJ DiNunzio first gathered each of his cohort of 10 players at the middle of the field. DiNunzio wore a mask and stood more than six feet away from every group.

“I explained you are going to see a picture and how crucial what we’ve talked about all offseason really is,” DiNunzio said. “My initial reaction was I was sad to see the photo.”

No doubt the Wilton players had already seen it, along with countless people in Fairfield County, and likely beyond. The photo shows 44 girls, unmasked and huddled together prior to the start of an annual senior scavenger hunt, which takes place before the start of the school year.

The photograph breaks every rule about what we have repeatedly been told to do the help prevent the spread of COVID-19. And it could prove to be particularly harmful because according to several sources Wilton’s Kevin Smith is one superintendent leaning toward not allowing his school to participate in CIAC athletics. This will certainly not help move the needle back toward the middle. Worse, will it cause Smith to consider moving from a hybrid school model to remote learning? Or push back the start of school?

At the same time, the photograph offers a cautionary tale, a reminder that we cannot beat the coronavirus right now, but we can at least attempt to outlast it. And just as everyone is being forced to make sacrifices, high school athletes need to be extra vigilant to enhance the chances of having a fall season.

First, about the 44 Wilton girls, which I have been told includes a number of athletes, some team captains. Obviously what they did is incredibly stupid. But lets not make them out to be aberrant. The only difference between them and kids in many other towns is they got outed. Maybe 44 is a particularly high number, but large groups of teens have been gathering all summer without adhering to guidelines.

And it is not just teenagers. I have heard countless stories of adults out at restaurants or at parties looking like a swarm of bees. This incident is hardly unique to Wilton, or kids.

The Wilton seniors — there were males involved with the scavenger hunt as well — even appear to have done a good job of covering their tracks. Shockingly, this was only discovered because the mother of one of the girls posted the photo on her Facebook page.

I’ve always thought there should be instruction for students on how to properly use social media. Apparently they are not alone.

But maybe something positive will come out of this. As we continue the debate about whether to play fall sports, and which sports get played, this is a reminder of what a thin line now exists between going forward and cancellation. And how any wrong moves will force the state Department of Public Health into a recommendation no high school athlete wants.

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“Over the last six weeks I have basically begged my football team to do the right thing,” DiNunzio said. “When they’re out in public, whether they are private, wear their masks, stay socially distant. If you want to have football you can have a say in it because if a bunch of guys on our team got sick, I am sure we would be shut down.”

For those trying to figure the current distinction between high school sports and club and travel, school was not a factor this summer. That matters. Wilton is one of many schools using hybrid learning. That means a larger interaction of students. Kids in the classroom can infect athletes, who then carry the virus to practice, or athletes can catch the virus at practice and bring it into school.

No matter your passion for playing, there is no disputing the risk is about to get greater.

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There is a lot high school athletes, like everyone, cannot manage. There are also concessions that can be made.

“I would have to say for a majority of my guys, they have done a really good job trying to avoid being those guys in a picture like that,” DiNunzio said. “The reason being they know they only have one shot at this. It was very discouraging to see that photo.”

Our excellent health metrics have likely caused us all to let our guards down a bit. In the last month, for the first time, I have occasionally gone out to dinner, always outdoors, always with one of a small group of the same friends. We don’t wear masks while sitting. Am I living in a glass house hurling stones?

DiNunzio said he reminded his players yesterday of something all high school athletes need to hear repeatedly if we are going to try and successfully play sports this fall.

“We can’t control everything that happens in the school,” DiNunzio said. “We can’t control how others go to parties and end up getting sick at a party. But you can control going to a party, getting yourself sick and then having to quarantine or have the rest of our team have to quarantine. We have to keep doing the right thing.”